Background: General Practitioners spend a disproportionate amount of time on frequent attenders. So far, trials on the effect of interventions on frequent attenders have shown negative results. However, these trials were conducted in short-term frequent attenders. It would be more reasonable to target intervention at persistent frequent attenders. Typical characteristics of persistent frequent attenders, as opposed to 1-year frequent attenders and non-frequent attenders, may generate hypotheses regarding modifiable factors on which new randomized trials may be designed.
Methods: We used the data of all 28,860 adult patients from 5 primary healthcare centers. Frequent attenders were patients whose attendance rate ranked in the (age and sex adjusted) top 10 percent during 1 year (1-year frequent attenders) or 3 years (persistent frequent attenders). All other patients on the register over the 3-year period were referred to as non-frequent attenders. The lists of medical problems coded by the GP using the International Classification of Primary Care (ICPC) were used to assess morbidity.First, we determined which proportion of 1-year frequent attenders was still a frequent attender during the next two consecutive years and calculated the GPs' workload for these patients. Second, we compared morbidity and number of prescriptions for non-frequent attenders, 1-year frequent attenders and persistent frequent attenders.
Results: Of all 1-year frequent attenders, 15.4% became a persistent frequent attender equal to 1.6% of all patients. The 1-year frequent attenders (3,045; 10.6%) were responsible for 39% of the face-to-face consultations; the 470 patients who would become persistent frequent attenders (1.6%) were responsible for 8% of all consultations in 2003. Persistent frequent attenders presented more social problems, more psychiatric problems and medically unexplained physical symptoms, but also more chronic somatic diseases (especially diabetes). They received more prescriptions for psychotropic medication.
Conclusion: One out of every seven 1-year-frequent attenders (15.4%) becomes a persistent frequent attender. Compared with non-frequent attenders, and 1-year frequent attenders, persistent frequent attenders consume more health care and are diagnosed not only with more somatic diseases but especially more social problems, psychiatric problems and medically unexplained physical symptoms.